My last post spoke to why as Catholics we understand the woman in Revelation 12 is Mary. Another reason for this understanding is just before she appears in John’s vision as the “woman clothed with the sun,” he sees the Ark of the Covenant — “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, loud noises, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail” (Revelation 11:19). At this point in time, the Ark of the Covenant had been lost to the Israelites for around 600 years. Yet John in a vision sees the ark in heaven, and it is immediately followed by his vision of Mary, the woman clothed with the sun.
When the Israelites left Egypt and spent 40 years wandering in the desert, God gave Moses very specific instructions on how their worship space was to be constructed. And within the Tabernacle was to be placed the Ark of the Covenant. Its purpose was to contain sacred objects – the stone tablets with the ten commandments God gave to Moses, the golden urn containing the manna God sent from heaven to feed them in the wilderness, and the rod of Aaron, the high priest (Hebrews 9:3-4).
Each of these items had a supernatural origin, and all represent Christ. The ten commandments contained the law of God written by the finger of God (the Holy Spirit) in stone; Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:31-35) and is the Word of God in the flesh (John 1:1-14). The manna was the bread from heaven that kept God’s people alive in the wilderness; Christ is the true bread from heaven that brings eternal life to his people (John 6:35). The rod of Aaron was the symbol of the high priest of Israel. It sprouted miraculous buds to confirm it was his household who held the priesthood of Israel (Numbers 17:8-11). Christ is the true high priest (Hebrews 4:14-15).
The Ark of the Covenant was created to be the dwelling place of these supernatural objects that represented the Christ to come. The ark itself was a natural creation, crafted by human hands, with very meticulous instructions from God:
“They shall make an ark of acacia wood; two cubits and a half shall be its length, a cubit and a half its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height. And you shall overlay it with pure gold, within and without shall you overlay it, and you shall make upon it a molding of gold round about. And you shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on the one side of it, and two rings on the other side of it. You shall make poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, to carry the ark by them. The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it. And you shall put into the ark the testimony which I shall give you. Then you shall make a mercy seat of pure gold; two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth. And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark; and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you of all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel.” (Exodus 25:10-22)
Below is a pictorial representation of the Ark of the Covenant:
Nobody was allowed to touch the ark. If it needed to be moved, poles were inserted into the rings, and it was lifted and transported by men carrying the poles.
The understanding of the Ark of the Covenant as a type of Mary should be easy for all to grasp. As the ark was created for the specific purpose to contain sacred objects that foreshadow Christ, Mary was created for the specific purpose to bear Christ in her womb. I am sometimes startled by the flippant view some have toward Mary in this regard. There can be an attitude any virgin woman could have been the mother of Christ and it makes no difference who it was. Some even propose God might have asked many women before Mary to become the mother of Jesus and was told no; Mary may not even have been His first choice. As if God wouldn’t have known beforehand they would say no? For those who would have this perspective I would simply ask them to go back and reread those 13 verses from Exodus I just provided where God gives the instructions for the ark. If He is so detailed and particular about the dwelling place of those sacred items that represent Him, how much more particular is He going to be about the dwelling place of God become flesh?
Scripture itself gives us a clear understanding of the parallel between Mary and the Ark of the Covenant. When David was made King of Israel and Jerusalem became their capitol, he immediately brought the ark to Jerusalem. There is a sad aspect to this story. Instead of carrying the ark by the poles as instructed, they opted to put the ark in a cart pulled by oxen. One of the oxen stumbled, and a man named Uzzah reached out his hand to steady the ark in the cart. That act cost him his life at the hand of God – no one was to touch the ark (2 Samuel 6:3-7).
Within that story in the first 15 verses of 2 Samuel 6, we find six parallels with the 15 verses from Luke 1:39-56. This is the story of Mary going to visit Elizabeth after finding out she would become the mother of Jesus. Six parallels between two such small passages of Old and New Testament Scriptures are not a coincidence.
When the ark reached the people in Jerusalem, David was “girded with a linen ephod” which is a priestly garment, and he leapt and danced before the ark with great fervor and joy (2 Samuel 6:14-16). John the Baptist (of priestly lineage) leaped in his mother’s womb when Mary approached (Luke 1:41).
The ark came to Jerusalem where God’s presence and glory was revealed in the temple (2 Samuel 6:12, 1 Kings 8:9-11). Mary returned home and after the birth of Christ came to Jerusalem where she presented God incarnate at the temple (Luke 1:56, 2:21-22).
Another strong indication we see for Mary as the new Ark of the Covenant is when the angel tells her of the way she would conceive Christ — “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). The Greek word for “overshadow” is episkiasei. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the same word is used when God entered the tabernacle where the Ark of the Covenant was placed – “And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting, because the cloud abode upon it (episkiasei), and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:35).
There is much we can learn about the person of Mary by understanding God’s command to create the Ark of the Covenant and its purpose as He dwelt among the people of Israel. Sometimes within Catholic artwork you will see a picture like this titled as the “Mercy Seat” on the “Ark of the Covenant.” As Christ is the fulfillment of the “types” dwelling within the ark and is the Mercy Seat, Mary is the fulfillment of the Ark of the Covenant, the dwelling place of God in the flesh.